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Emails aren’t private, so much should be known by now. When you communicate via email, the contents are not only visible to yours and the other side’s email providers, but potentially also to numerous others like the NSA who intercepted your email on the network. Encrypting emails is possible via PGP or S/MIME, but neither is particularly easy to deploy and use. Worse yet, both standard were found to have security deficits recently. So it is not surprising that people and especially companies look for better alternatives.

It appears that the German company FTAPI gained a good standing in this market, at least in Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Their website continues to stress how simple and secure their solution is. And the list of references is impressive, featuring a number of known names that should have a very high standard when it comes to data security: Bavarian tax authorities, a bank, lawyers etc. A few years ago they even developed a “Secure E-Mail” service for Vodafone customers.

I now had a glimpse at their product. My conclusion: while it definitely offers advantages in some scenarios, it also fails to deliver the promised security.

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Disclaimer: I created PfP: Pain-free Passwords as a hobby, it could be considered a LastPass competitor in the widest sense. I am genuinely interested in the security of password managers which is the reason both for my own password manager and for this blog post on LastPass shortcomings.

TL;DR: LastPass fanboys often claim that a breach of the LastPass server isn’t a big deal because all data is encrypted. As I show below, that’s not actually the case and somebody able to compromise the LastPass server will likely gain access to the decrypted data as well.

A while back I stated in an analysis of the LastPass security architecture:

So much for the general architecture, it has its weak spots but all in all it is pretty solid and your passwords are unlikely to be compromised at this level.

That was really stupid of me, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Turned out, I relied too much on the wishful thinking dominating LastPass documentation. January this year I took a closer look at the LastPass client/server interaction and found a number of unpleasant surprises. Some of the issues went very deep and it took LastPass a while to get them fixed, which is why I am writing about this only now. A bunch of less critical issues remain unresolved as of this writing, so that I cannot disclose their details yet.

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Today, I found this email from Google in my inbox:

We routinely review items in the Chrome Web Store for compliance with our Program policies to ensure a safe and trusted experience for our users. We recently found that your item, “Google search link fix,” with ID: cekfddagaicikmgoheekchngpadahmlf, did not comply with our Developer Program Policies. Your item did not comply with the following section of our policy:

We may remove your item if it has a blank description field, or missing icons or screenshots, and appears to be suspicious. Your item is still published, but is at risk of being removed from the Web Store.

Please make the above changes within 7 days in order to avoid removal.

Not sure why Google chose the wrong email address to contact me about this (the account is associated with another email address) but luckily this email found me. I opened the extension listing and the description is there, as is the icon. What’s missing is a screenshot, simply because creating one for an extension without a user interface isn’t trivial. No problem, spent a bit of time making something that will do to illustrate the principle.

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People searching for a Google Chrome ad blocking extension have to choose from dozens of similarly named extensions. Only few of these are legitimate, most are forks of open source ad blockers trying to attract users with misleading extension names and descriptions. What are these up to? Thanks to Andrey Meshkov we now know what many people already suspected: these extensions are malicious. He found obfuscated code hidden carefully within a manipulated jQuery library that accepted commands from a remote server.

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After my article on the browser sync mechanisms I spent some time figuring out how Firefox Accounts work. The setup turned out remarkably complex, with many different server types communicating with each other even for the most basic tasks. While this kind of overspecialization probably should be expected given the scale at which this service operates, the number of different authentication methods is surprising and the official documentation only tells a part of the story while already being fairly complex. I’ll try to show the entire picture here, in case somebody else needs to piece it all together.

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A few days ago I wrote about insufficient protection of locally saved passwords in Firefox. As some readers correctly noted however, somebody gaining physical access to your device isn’t the biggest risk out there. All the more reason to take a look at how browser vendors protect your passwords when they upload them to the cloud. Both Chrome and Firefox provide a sync service that can upload not just all the stored passwords, but also your cookies and browsing history which are almost as sensitive. Is it a good idea to use that service?

TL;DR: The answer is currently “no,” both services have weaknesses in their protection. Some of these weaknesses are worse than others however.

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There is a weakness common to any software letting you protect a piece of data with a password: how does that password translate into an encryption key? If that conversion is a fast one, then you better don’t expect the encryption to hold. Somebody who gets hold of that encrypted data will try to guess the password you used to protect it. And modern hardware is very good at validating guesses.

Case in question: Firefox and Thunderbird password manager. It is common knowledge that storing passwords there without defining a master password is equivalent to storing them in plain text. While they will still be encrypted in logins.json file, the encryption key is stored in key3.db file without any protection whatsoever. On the other hand, it is commonly believed that with a master password your data is safe. Quite remarkably, I haven’t seen any articles stating the opposite.

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The major change in PfP: Pain-free Passwords 2.1.0 is the new sync functionality. Given that this password manager is explicitly not supposed to rely on any server, how does this work? I chose to use existing cloud storage like Dropbox or Google Drive for this, PfP will upload its encrypted backup file there.

This would be pretty trivial, but sync functionality is also supposed to sync records if data is modified by multiple clients concurrently. Not just that, sync has to work even when passwords are locked, meaning: without the possibility to decrypt data. The latter is addressed by uploading local data without any modifications. Records are encrypted in the same way both locally and remotely, so decrypting them is unnecessary.

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I am presenting at the SINFO conference today. Here are some links as “further reading” for my presentation.

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